Wednesday 10 February 2016

The Blue Period

Everyone has a Blue Period. I don't mean Blue as in The Blues, but rather a retreat into a monochromed world. That's where I've been hiding. Mostly, I've been hard at work writing new stories, editing this new collection, trying to push this baby into shape. I've had quite a few new stories published, and done more readings in London, where I've discovered that half a vodka tonic is this author's perfect prep for a performance. Plus steady - not teetering - shoes.

But this is going to be a quiet post. No large ideas or twists, as I feel as though I've stepped aside from the blogging world and spent way too much time hiking on the mountain behind the house. Or coffee-chugging in front of the screen, playing with my characters. Or just getting on - as we all do - with what must be done. The thrill of publication is one thing, but it doesn't happen without the birth of some idea, the formation of a story, the submission of this story, its probable rejection, revision, resubmission.. and then.. and then..

My story 'Yann at Night' came out in Flight Journal, in an issue including an interview with my short story crush, May-Lan Tan, who says she listens to techno while she writes! May-Lan has a lot to say about loneliness, navigation through languages, and the violence of words. And stories you have been writing since you were four. If you haven't found an author to adore lately, read the interview and try Things to Make and Break.

'..and if I can ever write anything that affects people the way music does, that would be the best thing I could do. I think you could spend your whole life trying to do that. But there are so many limits with language—that’s why rhythm and melody become very important.'

'I think with any writer, your language is your weapon but it’s your prison as well.'

I was also surprised to be included in the Arabesque issue of Trafika Europe, a rich collection of mostly Arab-language writers living in Europe. 'Astragal' speaks of the harsh geology of ancient mountains, reflected in the harshness between men and women. Set in the Dolomites where a young girl disappears, the story sets in motion the craving for hope.

Another piece, 'A Very Tall Lady', was surprisingly commended in the Prole Short Story Competition, while 'Tales from Bodri Beach', which sees a family reunion on a Corsican beach, appeared in Lakeview Journal. So a pleasing end of year for this author.  

But now the time has come to wonder. This blog - Pelt and Other Stories - has provided a wonderful base to discuss short stories and attempt to understand the form, however I think it's time for a new arena -  perhaps even a Rose Period? - to speak of these and other things.

If you've followed me this far, Thank You. I'll soon be posting news about a new author website.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Hilary Mantel Says

Last year I entered a competition thinking the usual: Why am doing this? I'm just setting myself up for disappointment. I'll never get anywhere. This story is whacky why on earth would Hilary Mantel like it?

Because - yes - it was a competition to be judged by Hilary Mantel! The inaugural Hilary Mantel/Kingston University Press International Short Story Competition, set up by Dr. David Rogers, Director of Kingston Writing School and co-Director of Kingston University Press, and Alan McCormack, writer-in-residence for the Kingston Writing School, who proposed the competition idea. A big one. I know - and with a story called 'The Wild Beasts of the Earth will Adore Him', set in a small advertising agency in Ghana - fat chance!!

So of course I forgot about this submission, as one does, and went on through the summer and autumn writing story after story. I was very surprised when I received an email saying I'd made the longlist. This really doesn't happen very often. As much as it may seem otherwise, there are many, many rejections in the way of just one longlisting. These moments are rare, almost the type where you remember exactly where you were when you read the email. (I had to pull over to the side of the road to gasp, in front of the panel beater's.)

I also wasn't allowed  to tell anyone, except the dozens of members of my household over here in Italy (who mostly dont care). I didnt really think anyone would mind. I also started reading Wolf Hall, thinking if Hilary Mantel might be reading my story, then I should be reading hers too.

(Well, no need to say that Wolf Hall was brilliant and I spent days reading non-stop. Outside in the contemporary world I kept seeing heads on poles along the canal, and I couldn't help wishing Anne Boleyn could somehow escape her fate. She was some dame. I also wondered about the lighting back then - candles and lots of dark corners, things catching alight. There was a world to think about, as well as the breadth of the characters.)

In the meantime my story went to the shortlist and I was reeling. I hoped hard, but I didn't join the three finalists. My friend Annemarie Neary did, so I was cheering for her. This is when you throw away your writerly dignity and you smell a win in the air - almost like the smell of blood. I've been a shortlisted finalist before, and that's when the desire to win really kicks in.

But the winner - and deservedly so - was Australian writer Michelle Cahill, whose story 'Duende' was brilliant. Annemarie joined Rick Williams as runner-up. Both authors read their stories - 'One Day in Sarajevo' and 'What Lies Beneath' - at the event I attended last month at Kingston University. Mesmerising, lingering words.

The anthology is a rich collection (edited by David Rogers and Michael Kerin), that includes the shortlisted finalists of the competition and also the winning entries of the KUP Bonnie Greer Stories to Read Aloud Competition. Here's what Hilary Mantel had to say in the generous and inspiring introduction:

There are few limits to what a short story can do. One of the greatest of all practitioners, William Trevor, once described the skill involved as 'the art of the glimpse'... Imagine opening a window, on to a wild landscape: that is the kind of glimpse I think he means. Five seconds tells you the country is immense, the gale is blowing.

Remarkable! And well worth a read given the wide reach and varied texture of the stories.

(I shouldn't really say this, but worth it for the introduction alone.. Hilary Mantel's words 'The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him', by Catherine McNamara, was strongly atmospheric from the first sentence' are still making this writer feel quite dizzy..)

Wednesday 19 August 2015

A Short Story Festival and Two Book Launches

It has been the most astonishing literary summer. At first it was the second edition of the London Short Story Festival in late June, directed by the energetic and generous Paul McVeigh, and efficiently managed by London’s Spread the Word. For four days Piccadilly Waterstones was awash with short story writers and aficionados: old mates catching up or latecomers flying to talks, bright smiles on faces after invigorating workshops; some of us sneaking upstairs to the cocktail bar in between sessions, the braver of us shyly approaching festival readers at the inevitable pub bash afterwards. 
Four days of short story riches, involving newer writers such as May-Lan Tan, author of CB Editions’ Things to Make and Break, who read from her chapbook Girly, and seasoned authors like Ben Okri, who read one of my favourite stories, the title piece from his collection Incidents in the Shrine. Two exceptional events. There were also readings from Canadian D.W. Wilson, (his heartbreaking story ‘Mountain Under Sea) and the admirable Kevin Barry, who shuffled away after a brilliant reading and a run of amusing off-beat writing tips: Barry maintains he writes ‘primarily out of anxiety’ and puts his ‘blood and guts onto the page’ and thinks ‘more of food than short stories’ . I took part in one workshop with Mr. Okri which involved learning how to be attuned to the arrival of inspiration (such as when one is house-painting!)and how to let go of pre-packaged thought and embrace ideas fearlessly.

Later in the summer I was back in London for two exciting launches. I was lucky to have two short stories accepted by two different publications, Fugue Volume II (The Siren Press), and Structo 14. So I rocked up to Bloomsbury one Friday night, and Soho the night afterwards. Two wonderful evenings of listening to other writers read, meeting the Editors, and seeing the stories you’ve been peddling in print. Surely more rewarding than a new pair of heels?

With the Fugue Volume I receiving enthusiastic reviews (‘close to being magical’ – Sabotage Reviews), Lucy Carroll, Editor of The Siren Press, had a difficult act to follow.  I remember the submission call for Fugue Volume II suggested the editors were interested in the quirky and offbeat. I sent off one of my kinkiest pieces, Three Days in Hong Kong, and hoped for the best.  I was thrilled when it quickly made the cut.

How to compile a short story collection that is original and captivating, that will sell copies for a fledgling publishing company in a world that mostly disregards the medium? I always ask myself this when I pick up an anthology – of which there are so many dazzling examples around. I may be biased because my story is included in this book, but I think that Editors Lucy Carroll and Liviu Tanasoaica have harnessed a collective of buzzing modern energy: alienation and undertow; authors whose work jars, but gels together.

In the Editorial: The Fuguists are a diverse group of writers.. try and think of their efforts as a literary experiment, indicative of a contemporary fascination with character psychology. In this way we have pieces such as ‘Scarlet Streets’ by L.D. Lipinski, a blood-dripping sketch of teenhood in an abattoir-dependent town, and Alyson Hallett’s dreamy homage to Munch’s scream in a layered rendering of child abuse and murder; and Brandon Robshaw's tale of a lesson plan gone horribly off course. Clare Fisher’s ‘You Are Not Sorry’ portrays a lonely lying woman in a series of Facebook Messenger riffs, and we are entranced by the underlying powers that a new home inflicts upon a young married couple in Sally Oliver’s ‘Hole in the Wall’. There is much awkwardness, tension, and lapses of reason that betray the fuzziness of the temporal world and the intrusion of marred realities.

In common, the characters in the eight stories perhaps seem to be elusive, edgy, even abrasive. The character voices are intimate, often in the first person, strident, brittle and aware. The Fuguist world is a modern arena skirted by minor social despair. Characters crave attention and acknowledgement; communication often collapses; there is a lack of connection with a harsh, overwhelming outside world, whether it be through a zombie threat as in Darrens vivid piece ‘On the House’, or through the decrescendo of age, as in C.D. Menon’s quiet story ‘Spring Tides’.

The collection is discomforting and interestingly paced, images linger and there are no easy exits for the reader. Stories are captivating and quirky indeed, each one accompanied by Alexandru’s Savescu’s accomplished and lyrical images. (Here I confess to blind favouritism and declare that the print for my story Three Days in Hong Kong – an erotic pastische of Philomena’s nude body roll on a glassy hotel window – is the one I have fallen for! Well I did say it was a kinky piece..) 

Sabotage Reviews has this to say: ‘Three Days in Hong Kong’ by Catherine McNamara pulls you strongly into the place where the code-named Philomena M. waits for her lover. She is suspended in a glass box – almost as New York magician David Blain once was – in a hotel room above the city of Hong Kong, trapped and yet in the end not so. In that place of heightened sensuality she upends the power balance in the relationship..

Here’s the buying link and Fugue II is also available at all good independent book shops. I’ll talk about Structo 14 next week!


Brilliant holiday news: Litro online have accepted ‘The Architecture of Humans’
The Nottingham Review will be publishing ‘Hotel de Californie’ in September
Trafika Europe has accepted ‘Astragal’

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Pimp My Short Story

Pimped !
Less blogging and more pimping. I've been seriously pimping my short stories these days. Meaning I've been revising and rereading and revising and reading-out-loud and printing and scribbling and reprinting. They were all stories that were written last year in a flurry, sent off, rejected (mostly) with encouragement.

Well. There comes a point where wildly sending off material that has just been whisked together is not a great idea. Sometimes it has worked for me. Sometimes - very naughtily and with great enthusiasm - I sent off a just-finished text which went well in a competition or was taken by a review. A miracle! But other stories came straight back and I knew they were lumpy and unfinished.

I confess I find rewriting and revising very hard work. It's a different frequency, isn't it? It has none of the distilled pyjamas-all-day elation of writing. Oh no! It is a plodding, hike-around-the-house-and-come-back process, like checking on a fevered child you wish would just get well. Excuses are sought for more coffee, for proper chocolates. It is necessary to jog at the end of the day rather than scream.

And there is no way of knowing when you are in the thick of it. Whether you are over-writing, flogging a dead horse, getting mechanical and losing freshness. Who can tell? You have lost the guiding hand of the unthinking first draft and you are doing homework, writing an essay, trying to get it right for your teacher.

It can feel like that.

But recently (with the aid of an early evening jog through fields of baby green wheat) I've given up the fight. Pimping is possible. I can add and elaborate. I can slash and burn and delete. I've even become quite mean.

And, you know, sometimes, a delicately-pimped story can even end up looking like this:

Also pimped !

Happiness is.. My story 'Love and Death and Cell Division' will be published in Ambit this autumn. And 'The Book of Bruises' will be coming out in the next issue of Structo. Hooray!

Saturday 14 March 2015

An Interview: Love on the Road Anthology 2015

So many times we are told that short stories do not sell, that they are an unrewarded labour of love for writer and publisher alike. And yet. Am I wrong in sensing a slight upswing in short-story-loving these days? 

The Love on the Road Anthology 2015: Twelve More Tales of Love and Travel seems to be a declaration of this sort. A striking collection that editors Sam Tranum and Lois Kapila have noted is a personal project that has grown wings, LOTR 2015 is the second edition of a competition anthology initially launched in 2013. It came to life, one evening, in a humid Kolkata bar.  Sam and Lois, avid travellers who have long covered the ills of the world as journalists, decided to look at love on the road. It might have been one of those dreamy bar moments when you make resolutions and leaps in the air, but Sam and Lois went home and set up a competition, gathered respected judges and began reading submissions. And not only have they given voice to two dozen writers in two anthology editions, they are selling copies!

I entered last year's competition with a story not about love on the road, more like love down the road - meaning many years after the fact. I didn't think I'd have a chance as it wasn't perfumed with romance, and the relationship portrayed had failed. As a finalist I joined eleven other internationals with stories that are so diverse, so off-beat and challenging - nothing to do with smooches and skylines. Just work that is alive, buzzing with the intimacy and fractures and fall-out of love. 

Fellow writers came from all over the globe and have been broadly published, with story lines including a chat-up in a Zimbabwe queue, a gender change within a hetero couple, a Filipino schoolgirl who will soon discover that her 'love' has cost her her freedom, an American writer-vet kidnapped by a crazed surrogate mother, a relationship reassessment on the steps of the Acropolis. Many facets and forms of love are represented in rich, contrasting contexts. These stories speak not only of selflessness and acceptance, but also submission, abuse, appropriation and the darker shades of love. 

Short story writers adore passionate publishers so I decided to grill Sam and Lois:

1. I read that you encouraged submissions from all English-speaking corners of the globe. How was the response?

Sam: It was easy to get submissions from the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. To reach people in those countries, you just have to post something online it spreads, as long as it's relatively appealing. Reaching out to writers in other places with lots of people writing in English (such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa) was a bit trickier, for two reasons: the call for submission didn't spread as smoothly online, and it's legally and logistically difficult for people in some of those places to pay the reading fee online. So it took a little more work and flexibility to encourage submissions from those places. In the end, though, we got piles of stories from all sorts of places, which was really nice. One of our goals was to include in the anthology a wide range of perspectives on the theme, and I think we were able to do that.    

2. Did you find many common 'love' elements or patterns in the submissions you read?

Sam: The writers who were good enough to submit to our contest were really creative. They approached the theme from perspectives I definitely didn't expect. But there were a few patterns in the submissions. We got several stories set in Paris; I guess a lot of people associate Paris with love. Writers from the US seemed more likely to include explicit sex scenes in their love stories than writers from other places. There were also a fair number of stories set in the US (not necessarily by US writers) in the 1960s, involving road-trips. Most of the stories were fiction, although we were accepting both fiction and nonfiction.

3. You guys have seen a broad spectrum of human behaviour in diverse contexts through your work as international journalists. Did this influence the type of stories you selected for your final twelve?

Sam: It was curiosity that led me to journalism and to travel, and I think that's true for Lois, too. And it was with curiosity that I approached my judging. I was looking for good writing and engaging stories, but I was also looking for something interesting, something new, something I hadn't read before, something to pique and then satisfy my curiosity.  

4. Did you have any specific interest in place?

Lois: I think we looked for stories where the place and characters and love all mesh well together.

5. What kind of love made you read on?

Lois: You know, it's hard to answer that because looking back at the stories we selected, they include all kinds of love. There's the traditional boy-meets-girl in The Queue, which is set in the line for the post office in a town in Zimbabwe. And there's the dark side of love in Not a Finger More which explores an abusive relationship. I would say though that I find the platonic but deep love in Sunrise over Sausalito the most compelling. It follows the relationship between this rich old guy and his orderly, as they check out from an old-people's home and road-trip across the US. It's funny and absurd and sad, and shows how love can appear in the strangest of places.

6. Is love better on the road?

Lois: No, it's very uncomfortable. Sorry, bad joke. I guess that's a personal thing and it probably depends on whether you meet somebody for a holiday romance, and why you are travelling. In some ways, it's dangerous to travel with a partner. We often look silly out of context. We've adapted to where we live, and when we travel we can look helpless and ridiculous. You get sunburnt, or can't hail a taxi, or get sick and green. If you're going on holiday, it's usually short-lived. But for those who are forced to move from a home country to a new place, it can be a real strain on a relationship I think. If you can't find a job, or wrap your tongue around a language. You might have defined yourself as a useful person and partner, and suddenly you're flailing.

Thanks Sam and Lois for taking the time to reply! The best way to buy a copy of Love on the Road 2015 is through Liberties Press Ireland so get those fingers typing!

Saturday 3 January 2015

A Short Story Writer's List of Heady New Year's Resolutions

1. Enter short story competitions - going by the premise that if you don't enter 'em, you can't win 'em, consult Paul McVeigh's fantastic blog or Tania Hershman's brilliant Shortstops, and keep abreast of latest deadlines
2. DON'T enter short story competitions with a story that deep down inside you know is not suited to the review, the judge or the theme. It's a waste of money, no?
3. DON'T ever expect to win a short story competition. Not many people do. And DON'T be disappointed when you don't.
4. Submit to reviews everywhere. Just put on your secretary hat and do it. Remember that piece that was rejected eight times and is now coming out in an anthology?
5. DON'T tailor your story to a word count.
6. DON'T begin a story until it is ready to spew out of you, and until you can in some way convince yourself that it is worth the trouble of being written down. Don't talk about your story until you are through with it. Feel it, live it, breathe it, protect it. Don't drink or go out or abandon your idea until you have served its creation.
7. If you don't feel your ideas are strong enough, get off your writers' bum and back out into the world. Talk to people, or better, listen to their stories, their voices. Watch their eyes and hands.
8. Read more. Read all those damned books you ordered. Read classics. Read philosophy. Feel stupid, feel enlightened.
9. If you meet a short story writer, order their book. Blog about it. Support your kind.
10. Go to as many author events as possible. Remain starry-eyed when the big authors talk. They are your rock stars.
11. Remember you are little. But remember, Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks within, awakens (Carl Jung)
12. Understand what your true goal is, in all of this. Work towards it daily.
13. Remember you are a craftsman. Your tool is the DEL cursor. Kill off your darlings.
14. In your bleakest moments, speak to a writer mate. Their week has probably been just as crummy as yours.
15. Every so often, congratulate yourself on coming this far. Then hide the vodka bottle.
16. Jog or swim every two days.
17. Keep your best and purest energy for your work. Be selfish.
18. Trust the meanderings of your brain. Take measured leaps.
19. Appreciate the wonder of those around you.
20. Never give advice or follow a scrap of it.

Good luck to all short story writers in 2015 and may you dig deep into life's bucket of ideas.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

A Year of Short Story Wonders

This year has been wondrous. In a short story way. I’m not normally one for summaries and list-making madness at the end of the year, I’m someone who rather looks ahead, sees inadequacy and shortcomings everywhere, likes to get it all behind and start afresh. But something someone said to me a few days ago made me stop. I realise I’ve surrendered myself to the short story this year. I’ve been beating them out like a shoemaker stitching up leather. I’m grateful for a clutch of shortlistings and one tiny win. I’ve done workshops and readings, been to enriching festivals and, best of all, have met more short story writers than you can poke a stick at. There is a little drummer which is my beating heart that says, Short stories Cat, keep at it!

It all begins with Cathy Galvin’s Word Factory.  This year I’ve tried to go to as many Word Factory events in London as I could. I love their mix of intimacy and awesomeness. Hearing towering authors speak and read their stuff, and then sharing latest rejection or publication news with writer mates. We are instructed, inspired and coddled at the same time. Obviously it makes writing less of a solitary experience and one goes home with renewed drive, but it is even more refreshing to see big authors who have two arms and two legs and are dressed like us; and to wonder about the spark or frisson that really propels their work. Some were nervous, some splashy; many shared largely and with great humour. It is such a gift to listen, to have unvoiced questions answered.

Then there was Vienna. I think that steamy Austrian week is still glowing in many a writer’s mind. The 13th International Conference for the Short Story was a massive event with ongoing and truly international ripples. Many of the writers who took part have turned into great friends and we’ll see how many of us (fingers crossed) are able to attend the next instalment in Shanghai. Tireless Sylvia Petter was a wonderful organiser and brilliant host, and the warm Vienna evenings so dreamy.

And there have been workshops. I confess I signed up for more than one because I wanted to see how the instructing author – usually one who intrigues – might toss out writing scraps to hungry participants. I wanted to see if they would reveal points about their process of writing. Or perhaps I just wanted to see the magic up close. I was mostly satisfied. Cate Kennedy and Simon van Booy provided many, many glimmers, and though I felt like a short story groupie with a stupid grin, I did take precious morsels home.

The London Short Story Festival was a highlight, one I won’t be missing next year. Director Paul McVeigh has an infectious passion for the form and brought the crème de la crème to the floor. Listening to Claire Keegan read I felt lifted into her world of sharp smells and observations, cutting notions of the human; her salty charmed voice. Her book Walk the Blue Fields rode into me.

Daphne du Maurier
And there has been reading. Not all short stories of course. Sometimes it is good to plunge into a novel when one is being summoned by the jolting demands of writing a story. I loved Shirley Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon for language and insight, Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower for mood and description and her writhing characters; Daphne du Maurier’s collection Don’t Look Now which still rings in my mind; Murakami’s New Yorker story 'Scheherazerade' and his mesmerising tome 1Q84, read under my orange umbrella on a Corsican beach; Richard Ford’s collection Women with Men bought in a secondhand bookshop in Paris this autumn.. so many and never enough.

And now to the silly season. May you receive many, many beloved books and have the time to savour them.